Anatoli Brouchkov is a soft-spoken guy with silver hair, and when he lets out a reserved chuckle, his eyes light up like he was belly laughing. If you met him on the street, you’d never guess that he once injected himself with a 3.5 million-year-old strain of bacteria, just to see what would happen.
When I spoke with him at VICE’s Toronto office in October, the permafrost scientist—also known as a geocryologist, currently stationed at Moscow State University—told me that he’s feeling just fine. In fact, he says he’s feeling healthier and less tired than ever. His most famous claim is that he hasn’t had the flu in two years, which he coyly says may or may not have anything to do with the ancient bacteria he injected into his body.
The bacteria in question is known as Bacillus F, which Brouchkov pulled out of a permafrost sample from Mammoth Mountain in the northern Siberian region of Yakutsk in 2009. (You might remember Yakutsk as the location Motherboard contributor Ben Makuch visited last year in our documentary, “Cloning the Wooly Mammoth.”) Brouchkov believes that this bacteria was not merely preserved for millennia, but actually thrived under these conditions.
According to Brouchkov, Bacillus F has a mechanism that has enabled it to survive for so long beneath the ice, and that the same mechanism could be used to extend human life, too—perhaps, one day, forever. In tests, Brouchkov says the bacteria allowed female mice to reproduce at ages far older than typical mice. Fruit flies, he told the Siberian Times, also experienced a “positive impact” from exposure to the bacteria.
The problem is, he still doesn’t know what, exactly, that mechanism is.
Brouchkov isn’t the only scientist analyzing ancient bacteria pulled from the frozen depths of the northernmost regions of the world, though he may be one of the only few doing so in search of eternal life. For decades, scientists have been recovering bacteria from the Siberian permafrost and analyzing their properties. The CDC analyzed a giant prehistoric virus (“giant,” because it’s observable with a regular microscope) recovered from permafrost in a secret lab back in September, for example. Last year, researchers from the Russian Academy of Sciences sequenced the genome of a drug-resistant plasmid isolated from bacteria found in permafrost.
Such ancient viruses are incredibly complex, with hundreds upon hundreds of protein-encoding genes; influenza A has eight. In short, there’s a lot we don’t know about them.
Brouchkov’s belief, that ancient bacteria may hold the key to immortality, is a more fringe view. When I first read about Brouchkov a few months ago, my main question was: is this guy for real? To find out, I emailed Brouchkov to see if he’d like to chat—on the phone, I imagined. But as fortune would have it, he told me that he was presenting at a conference in Montreal on his work, and that he would be in Toronto for just one day.
We convinced Brouchkov to swing by, cracked open some vodka, and toasted to freedom and eternal life.